It has been a paradoxical season thus far for Williams’ young rookie. On the one hand, there have been unpleasant paddock disputes over Lance Stroll’s early season struggles and a team perpetually trying to rid its young recruit of the ‘pay driver’ label.
On the other, Lance has achieved a podium and a front-row grid slot in spite of chaotic surroundings and inclement weather – accolades as good as any similarly aged rookie has achieved.
In the opening races there were thoroughly legitimate grounds for criticizing Williams’ decision to sign the Canadian teen. Crashes in pre-season testing and the loss of nominated mentor Bottas had already upped the pressure on the young Canadian going into the season-opener.
Stroll looked profoundly uneasy on the bumpy Albert Park circuit – for a driver still struggling to properly modulate the steering and the pedals it was the worst sort of circuit possible to start his Formula 1 career on. A heavy crash in FP3 was an almost inevitable result.
It was a level of unpreparedness that many expected to see in fellow F3 graduate Verstappen, only to be spread-eagled by the Dutch teenager’s prodigious disregard for his own inexperience.
The aggressive driving style that had earned Lance top plaudits in Italian F4 and European F3 was dramatically jarring against the sensitivities of a car many times grippier and more powerful than he had driven previously. Arguably, Stroll’s early season tribulations bore all the hallmarks of a driver who would have benefited from a preparatory year in Formula 2.
Unquestionably, the low point of the teen’s season was a Spanish Grand Prix which saw him passed by team-mate Massa despite the Brazilian having suffered the time loss of a puncture on the first lap.
All too quickly performances like these, coupled with the broad, billionaire shoulders of his father, became an excuse for an unpleasant level of paddock discourse. Compatriot Jacques Villeneuve’s suggestion that Stroll was the “worst rookie” in F1 history, having explicitly said pre-season that Lance was deserving of his F1 promotion, ought not have been worthy of comment from the team.
The good-humoured maturity that Lance maintained amid what often amounted to crass, thinly-veiled jealousy was arguably indicative of the cerebral young driver that would materialise in the subsequent races.
Just as a first win at the end of a crash-strewn first season in F3 became a platform for the championship-winning campaign that would follow, a combative first points finish in his home Grand Prix would prove a stepping-stone to higher things.
Quite counterintuitively, in weekend that probably vies for the record of most driving errors made during a dry race weekend, it would be the Canadian rookie who best kept his nose clean on the hazardous streets of Baku, to rise above the chaotic fray to achieve a genuinely remarkable podium. Even being pipped on the line by Valtteri Bottas couldn’t undermine Stroll’s moment of glory.
However arguably more impressive was outpacing both Ferraris and the Mercedes of Bottas to earn a front-row grid slot last time out in Monza. Lance was truly extraordinary in his first ever experience of full wet conditions in an F1 car, on a circuit renowned for demanding an exceptional level of driving finesse and precision.
Again, in conditions which ought to have exposed Lance’s inexperience (and in weather conditions historically thorny for the Williams team), Stroll had a reserve of instinct and ability to excel, and in the process emulated Max Verstappen’s habit of repeatedly eclipsing markedly more seasoned drivers in the wet.
Another example of this intrinsic reservoir of ability came with a cameo foray into sportscars at the 2016 Daytona 24 Hours; despite it being his first and last outing in a closed-cockpit car, the powerful Chip Ganassi ran Ford EcoBoost Riley DP did not daunt Lance, nor did the infamously savage nighttime Daytona stints.
For a seventeen-year-old delving head-first into a completely alien form of motor-racing he performed with great aplomb alongside team-mates Brendon Hartley, Andy Priaulx and Alex Wurz, and was in contention for victory before being curtailed by gearbox issues.
And therein lies the paradox of Lance Stroll. In perfect conditions on a Barcelona circuit that he had tested on extensively preseason, he floundered. Factor in some additional variables, like the slippery Baku asphalt, a Monza deluge or even some mobile GT car chicanes, and Lance has consistently proved equal to the task in situations where his inexperience ought to have put him at a disadvantage.
Arguably this suggests that Stroll is overdriving under more conventional racing conditions thus far in his rookie year. Much as the instinct to coercively extract results from the car saw him make frequent errors in his first season in F3, this instinctive aggression has jarred against the delicacy demanded by modern F1 machinery.
It unquestionably remains valid to say that Lance would have benefited from a season as Charles Leclerc’s team-mate in F2 (as PREMA’s F3 champion, Stroll was heavily linked with the squad’s F2 outfit prior to signing with Williams).
And yet, a semblance of the multiple title-winning junior driver, a driver who was starting to make a bid for an F1 career on merit before his father accelerated the process, is now being seen in F1. It has been an undeniably rocky apprenticeship for Stroll at the pinnacle of motorsport, however his resolute maturity off-track and sporadic instinctive excellence on-track suggests that he has the potential to become a very fine driver indeed.
Certainly, if Lance can translate an instinctive affinity for a water-logged racetrack into a more intuitive command of his car in the dry, the Canadian rookie can look forward to a very successful career indeed.